Few filmmakers are as adept at weaving the past and present as Spike Lee. His most recent project Da 5 Bloods is exemplary of this as well as his occasional nods and riffs on cinematic history. With the introduction of the four African American vets who meet and prepare to return to Vietnam, ostensibly to recover the remains of a fellow soldier—though they are also on a mission to find some buried gold bullion—you learn their names and a smattering of their resumes.
Like Malcolm X and Blackkklansman, the film opens with a montage of pics and clips of momentous African American history, none more striking and on point than Muhammad Ali’s famous quote “I ain’t got nothing against those Vietcong.”
It sets the stage for the entry of the reunion of the brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and this establishing shot gives them opportunities to say how much they have changed, or not.
Even before Marvin Gaye arrives on the soundtrack with his classic “What’s Goin’ On?” the Bloods’ names evoke Motown, specifically the Temptations with Delroy Lindo (Paul), Clarke Peters (Otis), Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Melvin), and Norm Lewis (Eddie). Jonathan Moore (David) portrays Paul’s son and there is a scene where a bit more than nuance is made to lead singer David Ruffin, not David of the Bible, Moore informs Mélanie Thierry (Hedy) the only white woman in the film. She is traveling with two other NGO workers who get inadvertently caught in the film’s crossfire and two and half hours of intensity.
An exchange of paperwork legitimates the Bloods’ trip, official government documents that permits them to recover the remains. Their travel guide, Johnny Nguyen (Vinh Tran) later hands out the maps they will need to navigate territory they haven’t seen since the war. When Otis breaks from the group to keep an appointment with a Vietnamese woman, he learns that he’s the father of her daughter. A nightclub scene offers a brief interlude as the Bloods dance, a little monkey, twist and mash potatoes, as they once did when they were much younger. And it’s interesting to see how there are no younger actors to portray them back in the day or to remake their faces as Netflix did with Robert DeNiro and other characters in “The Irishman.”
Film buffs will immediately recognize both the visuals and music as the Bloods make their way up the Mekong River into Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” accompanied by Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” that captures the impending conflict as it did in Apocalypse Now. Before they are completely up the river, they encounter vendors on boats aggressively pushing their wares, much to the chagrin of Paul, in what will be his first outburst of PTSD. Further up the river, almost incomprehensibly, a pair of sneakers are strung across on wire as if they were on telephone wires in the ghetto. David, unsuccessfully, tried to retrieve them.
Earlier when they encounter three NGO workers there is a sense of foreboding when they explain they are there to find and detonate mines. These “Bouncing Bettys,” as they were called during World War II, are planted throughout the underbrush. Inevitably, David steps on one and cannot move lest the explosive rips him to shreds. The group’s ingenuity, especially Paul’s quick thinking, rescues his son by yanking him tug-of-war style from danger. Such will not be the luck of one of the others.
Lee uses a series of flashbacks to highlight Chadwick Boseman (Norman). Is this another nod to the Motown’s composer and arranger Norman Whitfield? His speeches are laced with black militancy and revolutionary rhetoric, from Crispus Attucks to the Black Panther Party. Shortly after they discover his remains, they stumble on the gold which is scattered around the hillside of northern Thailand where the action segments of the movie were filmed. Are the gold bars the reparations that Norman dreamed of, or the potential payoff to rip the brothers apart? Or is it another Lee riff on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”? Unbeknownst to them, lurking on the horizon are Vietnamese bandits and clearly a clash of wills is in the making.
The eventual showdown leaves casualties on both sides, but one of the Vietnamese escapes, and you know he will soon return with a team of vengeful comrades. Meanwhile, Paul, in a growing fit of madness, abandons the group and takes off on his own. As he makes his way through the semi-jungle, he is bitten by a snake and ensnared in a trap, which only increases his insanity, and Lee and the writers, including Kevin Willmott, provide him with a crazed monologue that bears all the pent up, frustrated, Trump-like tendencies he evinces, right down to his MAGA red cap. He is literally and figuratively on his way to digging his own grave. There is something terrifying, something terribly haunting and deranged about him, reminiscent of “Aquirre, the Wrath of God.”
Lee was probably not thinking of the five black men who rode with John Brown on that fateful raid at Harper’s Ferry that precipitated the Civil War. Only one of the five men who rode with Brown survived, in effect, lived to tell the tale. Similarly, only one of the Bloods survive, though Norman has long been dead. David, not an original Blood, survives as well and he is left to bring the story into the current realm of Black Lives Matter, where again Lee has finessed a way to merge the past with the present.
The film is also a reminder of the late author and journalist Wallace Terry whose book “Bloods,” is an oral history of the African American soldiers in the Nam. In keeping with Terry’s conclusions, Lee has only one moment in which the Bloods discussed the possibility of “fraggin’” or taking their anger out on their fellow white troops. There’s a nice play on words when one of the Bloods confuses Cali or California with Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre.
Interestingly, to evoke again the Temptations, of the original five, only Otis is still alive. His namesake in the film, too, is a resourceful survivor who seems to be on his way to repairing things between his daughter and her mother.
Da 5 Bloods—and this continues the numbers in his films: “Girl 6,” “4 Little Girls,” and “25th Hour”—has all the warp and woof in Lee’s arsenal, and not only is he an astute film historian, he is a master teacher with an intuitive sense of taking the loose ends of our diverse culture and make it resonate with fresh insights and an invigorating perspective.Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review
In the summer of 1969, I lived with my boyfriend in a Marxist commune in New Haven, Connecticut. Almost every evening, we sat around the living room having discussions about political issues (and working out personal issues between members of the commune). I mostly kept quiet because I wasn’t a Marxist, only a Marxist-in-law, as it were.
But my boyfriend and I discussed the issues when we were by ourselves. The root of our disagreement was that he thought the main problem in the US was class disparity and I thought it was racism. In his new book, The Broken Heart of America, Harvard historian Walter Johnson shows exactly how we were both right and that the flashing light illuminating both of these issues from almost the beginning of the American experiment has been, and is, St. Louis, Missouri, my home town.
Johnson is both scathing and precise in his analysis of how and why, “From the Lewis and Clark expedition to the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 and the launching of Black Lives Matter, many of the events that we consider central to the history of the United States occurred in St. Louis.”
And then there is what Johnson calls, “the often forgotten radical history of St. Louis,” in which people of color (frequently women) and other groups fought back, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Johnson acknowledges that previous historians have noted St. Louis’s geographical location at the junction, not only of the Missouri and the Mississippi, but of the north and south, east and west, but, he says, “This book makes a more pointed claim: that St. Louis has been the crucible of American history—that much of American history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness in the city of St. Louis.”
Johnson, who teaches history and African-American studies at Harvard, has the patience and the writing skills to lay out his story in riveting detail over 500 pages.
Let’s begin with the native Americans. The Cahokia Mounds, straight across the river from Delmar Boulevard, defines the racial divide in present day St. Louis, in the flats of Illinois there is a beautiful green park, once a city established and built by Native Americans. They arrived about 1100 AD, possibly migrants through the Ohio River valley. The soil was excellent, and allowed the Cahokians to construct 120 huge mounds—the conical ones were for burials, the platform mounds for habitation, and long, triangular ones, called “ridgetop mounds,” that might have been built for defense or burials.
By around 1400, they had to leave, perhaps because overpopulation had depleted the local resources. In the spot where St. Louis is now, there were twenty-five mounds. They had been torn down by the time of the Civil War. Johnson relates that the descents of the mound builders included the Mandan, the Arikara, and the Hidatsa tribes, peoples that Lewis and Clark encountered along the Missouri River in the beginning of the 1800s.
But Lewis and Clark were not anthropologists nor observers; they were scouts, looking for ways to lay claim to the Native American lands, using removal, extraction, and exploitation to drive out owners of property that were (are) not white, were (are) not capitalists, were (are) not on board with buying and selling everything—humans and their children, animals, crops, minerals, topsoil, acres, weapons of war, the government, and the future of the planet.
When Clark got back to St. Louis from his expedition up the Missouri, he sold one of his family’s slaves and built himself an office “for licensing white explorers, traders, and trappers who planned to travel beyond St. Louis into Indian country.” For a while, the most important were the trappers, who made St. Louis into a hub of the fur trade—mostly beaver pelts, trapped, skinned, and processed mostly by Native Americans.
This system may have seemed productive for the Native Americans, but as early as 1803, Thomas Jefferson was laying out his plan (his plot) to draw the Native Americans more and more deeply into debt so that they would have to hand over their lands to repay what they had “borrowed”.
When I was growing up, I knew the word Chouteau as the name of a street that ran west from the river to Forest Park. It was named after Pierre Chouteau, a fur trader who had a wife from the Osage tribe and another wife (or mistress) from Louisiana. He lived in St. Louis, while his brother, Auguste, lived among the Osage (and fathered at least 16 children with multiple native American or mixed-race women).
The Chouteaus relied on the Native Americans to make money for them; in addition, various Native American tribes entered alliances with the Americans in order to fend off rival tribes. After Missouri became a state in 1820, Senator Thomas Hart Benton went into the Senate, where he made sure that the Chouteaus benefited from a treaty with the Osage nation that transferred “hundreds of thousands of acres to the Chouteau family in repayment for Osage debts supposedly incurred at the family ’s company stores.”
By 1838, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (run by Clark) had removed 81,000 Native Americans, members of at least seven tribes, from 419 million acres. And, by the way, the house I grew up in was on Clark Avenue
Johnson writes, “In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, St. Louis became the military headquarters of the Western Department of the US Army and the staging post for the Indian Wars.” Senator Benton was an old rival of Andrew Jackson, who was in favor of going to war with the Native Americans and killing them. Benton had a different plan—just claim their lands and sell them at the lowest possible price to any white man who wanted to buy them, or maybe just move into the Native Americans’ dwellings, drive the owners away, and take over their crops.
Jackson and Benton set their conflicts aside and became good friends. They erected a large military post about ten miles southeast of my grandparents’ future house and named it after Thomas Jefferson. Johnson writes, “In the decades before the Civil War, Indian fighting was big business in the City of St. Louis,” which provided food but also weaponry and horses. One soldier whom Thomas Hart Benton particularly favored was William Harney, a “dragoon” from Tennessee who showed up at Jefferson Barracks in 1823.
He was the personification of the intersection between Native American slaughter and racial crimes against African Americans. In 1834, he beat to death a woman slave named Hannah. Johnson writes, “He had misplaced his keys and blamed her for hiding them.” The upside of the case was that in St. Louis there was public outrage at Hannah’s death. The downside was that a corrupt judge transferred the jurisdiction of the case to a county outside of town that was more pro-slavery, and Harney was acquitted, put back into the dragoons, sent off to Florida for the Seminole War. By the mid-1850s, he was known among the Sioux as “Woman Killer.” And then they named a street in St. Louis after him.
The principal subject of The Broken Heart of America is African-American struggles, and St. Louis, in Johnson’s depiction, represents the never-ending back and forth between racists and anti-racists.
This is a review and not a summary of the book (though Johnson’s exploration of the history of St. Louis makes that tempting). A couple of key episodes must be noted, however. One is what turned out to be the effects of The Missouri Compromise, which, in 1820, allowed for Missouri to join the union as a slave state, offset by Maine’s entrance as a free state. 1820—two hundred years ago and only thirty-two years after the ratification of the American Constitution.
The US government certainly wanted this trading hotspot at the juncture of the Missouri and the Mississippi to come under federal control, but northerners wanted to outlaw slavery and southerners wanted slavery to continue in the state. The arguments on both sides were graphic and threatening, so much so that Jefferson, slave-owner and epic waffler on the subject, wrote to a friend that, “This momentous question, like a fireball in the night, awakened and filed me with terror.”
The reason was that Jefferson, like most slave-owning waffles, thought that the “institution would die out on its own.” But the mere act of discussing it drew protective and angry lines around the issue. Jefferson, it can be argued, knew that slavery was not “good for black people”, but its defenders fell back on the argument that it was more and more after the Missouri Compromise.
Johnson’s main point is that because St. Louis was the organizing center of Indian Removal, home to few slaves, to a significant population of free African Americans, and to many white men from the east who were scrambling for second chances, the competition for jobs and income had to rely on theories of white supremacy and the backlash against white supremacy.
In St. Louis before the Civil War, there was actually what writer Cyprian Clamorgan called “Colored Aristocracy”—a group that included a woman named Pelagie Rutgers, who was worth half a million dollars (about $14,000,000 today.) One thing Johnson points out is that “…the violence of slavery in St. Louis was an index of is vulnerability, not it’s vitality.”
It was vulnerable partly because it was so easy for slaves to escape across the river, partly because there were so many free African Americans, and partly because plenty of African American writers, including three women, could write about their experiences and get them published.
St. Louis was also, famously, the scene of the Dred Scott decision, but a lesser known legal decision preceded it—a woman slave, Winny, was taken by her owner from Illinois to St. Louis in 1818. She sued for her freedom and won her case in 1824 on the grounds that she had lived for several years in free territory. Subsequently, several hundred slaves won their freedom in Missouri using her case as precedent.
The Dred Scott case was a reaction to thirty years of enslaved African Americans successfully using legal means to fight slavery. Punch/counterpunch. And then came Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War.
According to Johnson, abolitionism was more complicated than we have been taught. It was closely tied to Native American removal, and the principal goal was to give non-slave holding white men access to western lands without competition by slaveholding white men. Fort Sumter was fired on in April, 1961, St. Louis, and Jefferson Barracks, with all of its arms, equipment, and provisions. “Woman-killer” William Harney was in charge of the arsenal, and by May, 1861, Harney was ready to not defend it but to hand it over to secessionist sympathizers in St. Louis and in Missouri, which included the Missouri governor, Claiborne Jackson.
Nathaniel Lyon had different ideas. He spied on a group of southern-sympathizers training in the western edge of the city, recruited 8,000 soldiers, surrounded, and captured the secessionist trainees, and took them back to the arsenal to be imprisoned. Afterwards, Johnson writes, “For several days, the city of St. Louis teetered on the brink of an all-out war,” but even two days later, southern sympathizers, at least ones with means, were preparing themselves to flee the city. Two of the soldiers who witnessed Lyon’s preemptive victory were Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. By the end of the month, Harney was out, and St. Louis (and Missouri) did not secede.
One significant detail about Lyon’s action was that his anti-slavery militia was composed of at least one third German immigrants, a large population in St. Louis, and a group deeply opposed to slavery. After the retention of St. Louis. Lyon and his men pursued their pro-slavery antagonists south and west to Springfield and Rolla, employing escaped slaves as scouts and then equipping them with military gear so that they could join the Union Army. Johnson writes, “these Black Americans told their stories, denounced their erstwhile owners as traitors, and offered their labor, and even their lives.”
Another episode that put St. Louis of the leading edge of racial issues was the opposite of Jefferson Barracks, the newly founded Benton Barracks, fifteen miles up the river, on the northside, where, Johnson writes, “The first regiments of US Colored Troops—the Sixty-Second, Sixty-Fifth, and Sixty-Seventh US Infantry—were formed…in May 1863, months before the formation of Black regiments elsewhere.”
He adds, “By the time the Missouri State Constitution of 1865 made their legal emancipation official and irrevocable, most of those who had been enslaved in St. Louis had long since claimed freedom for themselves.” Three public schools for African American children were opened in 1866, and in 1868, public street cars became legally integrated.
But of course, there was backlash, and after the Civil War, whites in St. Louis turned their attention back to Native American removal, expropriation, and extermination. The idea that this was the destined future of the US was so strong that in 1869, there was discussion about moving the US capital from Washington D.C. to St. Louis, which would be closer to the expropriated lands and at the center of the nation, but what did the idea in was that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, coming means of transportation, ran into and out of Chicago, not St. Louis.
The first bridge across the Mississippi, the Eads Bridge, was too little and too late. Eventually, plenty of railroads passed through St. Louis, but try as they might, St. Louisans never caught up to the Windy City.
The Civil War ends about 25% into Johnson’s book, and the next 150 years are equally interesting—carefully written and dramatic, with many details and a strong overarching theory—that racism is essential to the accumulation of wealth and power by the privileged (very) few, and that they (very) privileged few know this, and never hesitate to stir up feelings of white resentment in order to keep the funds and the power rolling in.
Johnson’s book ends by exploring the killing of Michael Brown in 2014. He focuses less on what actually happened in the shooting than he does on the shooting as an example of something else: “The City of Ferguson, with its white mayor, its majority-white city council, its almost totally white police force and its white municipal judge—was farming its poor and working class black population for revenue.”
That is, not only stopping pedestrians and drivers for minimal offenses and then jacking up the fines for missed court dates or unpaid tickets, but also using the fines rather than taxes (Ferguson has plenty of large businesses, but they pay little to no taxes) to finance the government.
He then points out that nineteen prisons have been built in Missouri in the last forty years, all in rural areas where the employees are white, using prisons as a profit-making enterprise. The riots that began after the killing Michael Brown lasted, off and on, for months, and though his killer was not arrested or indicted, the City of Ferguson did pay Brown’s parents $1,500,000 after being sued for wrongful death.
For those who are not from St. Louis, and may never have been there, reading Johnson’s book probably causes a lot of nodding, and repeated thoughts of, “I would have expected that,” but for those of us who grew up there, the effect is more depressing, causing us to question our own pasts as well as the behavior of our relatives.
My elementary school was peacefully integrated when I started second grade. My mother and I lived in a mixed neighborhood. I never heard my relatives use the N-word. But how did they think or talk when we weren’t looking at them? I have no idea. However, detailing St. Louis’s fascist, exploitative past is not Johnson’s point. He makes his real point in the last paragraph of the chapter about Brown’s killing: “On August 9, 2014, the disinherited of St. Louis rose again to take control of their history. When the time came, they were ready—subjects of a history of serial dispossession and imperial violence so profound that it has been built into the very fabric and common sense of the city, yes, but also legatees of a history of Black radicalism as measurelessly implacable as the flow of the rivers.”
And then there is an epilogue, detailing how “All over the city, people are finding new ways to live, to connect, to cultivate new sorts of spaces, to grow into new sorts of people.” After listing various programs designed to improve the lives of black St. Louisans, he ends with a track team coached by an African American woman whose own son was shot to death in 2017.
He writes, “Of the fifty or so kids who form the core of the team, almost half qualified for the Junior Olympics in 2019. They fly around the track in the fading light, little kids taking impossibly long strides.”
The publication of The Broken Heart of America could not have been more timely—six weeks before the killing of George Floyd. Johnson’s insights might have shaped the way we have talked about the killing, but there aren’t many reviews (when I look for a review in the Washington Post under “St. Louis,” I mostly find news about the Cardinals, though the WaPo did publish an Op-ed by Johnson). The virus and DT have overwhelmed the sort of conversation we should have had. But if Johnson has hope, then I do too. And my hope is that this book will find a huge audience.
In America’s national imagination and in the private thoughts of individual writers all over the world Ernest Hemingway looms large in one of two ways. First, there is the Papa Hemingway profile: older, grizzled, weather-worn, white-haired, and always bearded. That’s the Hemingway of the 1950s, in the afterglow of The Old Man and the Sea (which was his last book-publishing triumph while alive).
But then there is the Young Hemingway of Paris in the Twenties renown. The boundary-testing, barrier-breaking prose innovator, who with The Sun Also Rises, plus a legendary batch of early short stories (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Big Two-Hearted River,” “In Another Country” and others), transformed American writing as he influenced world literature in the mid-to-late 1920s.
Even now, more than a half-century after his 1961 suicide and nearly one hundred years after his first books appeared in the 1920s, aspiring writers yearn to create books and affect culture with something resembling Hemingway’s power. Indeed, while Hemingway is the ultimate Dead White Male in the opinion of many, he remains a towering literary role model for others.
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1932-1934 is Vol. 5 in the ambitious series of tomes that Cambridge University Press is issuing to chronicle every letter-writing year of Ernest Hemingway’s existence. This 600-plus page collection is devoted to a period of three years and that is a remarkable reminder of how prolific Hemingway was as a correspondent.
What’s most fascinating, though, about this guided tour through 1932, 1933, and 1934 in the life of Hemingway is that it captures one of his most important in-between periods.
After making his mark as a fiction writer of the first rank between 1925 and 1929, when A Farewell to Arms became a popular as well as critical favorite, the early 1930s were defined by Hemingway’s pivot toward nonfiction with an experimental work titled Death in the Afternoon. That book-length exegesis was a bold effort to convey not just the author’s varied ideas about the art of writing and the making of art in general, but most of all to examine and explain bullfighting to a readership that presumably knew little about the rituals and mysterious ethos of what Hemingway consider a secular form of worship.
In our time, nothing could be less appealing in many quarters than the mention of bullfighting. Like deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, and other pursuits now out of favor due to violence and mayhem directed at animals, the world of bullfighting is doomed in the realm of political correctness. Yet, as a writer obsessed with how war and prizefighting were all-consuming challenges requiring durability on the part of participants, Hemingway was supremely preoccupied with bullfighting.
To his way of thinking, a matador had one primary trait in common with a good soldier or a great boxer: that is, the ability to endure “grace under pressure.” And those three words— “grace under pressure”—came to define what’s still known as the Hemingway Code. Even closer to Hemingway’s heart was his conviction that writers, too, were likely to be wounded like matadors or boxers or infantrymen. The private anguish and psychic punishment endured by serious writers struck Ernest Hemingway as the domestic equivalent of the physical damages sustained by the above.
Therefore, it is no surprise that in this volume of letters there are dozens of exchanges with Hemingway’s esteemed Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, about all the details and elements involved in Death in the Afternoon in 1932. As a densely textured full-length nonfiction book about a range of topics that to modern, mainstream audiences seemed alien and disconnected, Death in the Afternoon was exceedingly different from the fiction that had put Hemingway on the map. It was a risky detour.
But the years 1932-34 were marked by many other detours. Hemingway continued writing admirable short stories; and his 1933 collection, Winner Take Nothing, had a Zen-like title, worthy of Kerouac. Perhaps most important was that during those years in the early half of the 1930s, Key West in Florida became Hemingway’s new home. Far removed from Paris in the Twenties and before serving as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War circa 1937, the years covered in this volume reveal Hemingway’s unfolding life on American turf—just barely.
In those Key West years, Hemingway was deep into his second marriage while America was getting deeper into the Great Depression. Many of the letters, notes, telegrams and whatnot addressed to Max Perkins at Scribner involve endless calculations in regard to royalties, advances, IOUs, and every other type of fiscal transaction. Money was always on Hemingway’s mind because he was a generous friend, forever loaning sums to other writers who did not have even a fraction of his commercial success.
But despite the bestselling profits from A Farewell to Arms, most of all (a 1932 film of that novel enhanced both bank account and public popularity for Hemingway), the consistent flow of monetary requests between author and publisher remind us that even a successful writer is often tapped out.
Letters, notes, blurbs, and occasional outbursts sent to fellow writers John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and others also fill this volume with Hemingway’s idiosyncratic short-hand style of expressing himself in private. These are not polished, well-crafted epistolary gems in the tradition of James Baldwin or Sylvia Plath, who took to letter-writing as an art form.
Hemingway’s letters are often brusque. Sometimes sloppy. He could be curt, profane, poetic, and humbly ambitious (oxymoron intended) all in one missive. This note to Max Perkins is an example:
“ . . . and my idea of a career is never to write a phony line, never fake, never cheat, never be sucked in by the . . . movements of the moment, and to give them as much literature in a book as any son of a bitch has ever gotten into the same number of words.”
The most fascinating thing about The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1932-1934 is that it allows readers to inhabit that in-between part of the author’s life where he was already established and yet at the same time still yearning to prove himself, always daring to try something new, never repeating himself.
In this collection of letters, Ernest Hemingway is in his 30s and not resting on any laurels. He could not know what triumphs and tragedies lay ahead. But he knew how to live fiercely and with conviction.
There is much to like about Clarence Major, the poet, writer, editor, and painter. He is as prolific as any notable American writer, but maybe not as highly commercial as the most promoted scribes on the national bestselling lists. As the pundits of World Literature Today, Major is a “polymorphous writer who has been iconoclast, black esthetician, modernist, surrealist, postmodernist, and deconstructionist.” That’s what readers admire about Major and hold him so high regard.
Fans have always wondered when the author would release a reader of sorts. Well, here it is: The Essential Clarence Major: Prose and Poetry, a well-packaged collection of novel excerpts, short stories, essays, memoir, and poetry that will give the reader a generous sampling of the writer’s creative range. The segments of his prose writing are most revealing and intriguing. Some of the early works have not featured, including No, Emergency Exit, and one of my Major favorites, All Night Visitors.
Before going deeper into the collection, let’s meet the author, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, who later moved to Chicago with his mother. The writing bug bit him when he read Raymond Radiguet’s 1923 Devil in the Flesh, leading to a youthful obsession with the books of Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Also, he fell in love with the style of Impressionism and the genius work of Vincent van Gogh, but he reconsidered his artistic goals at 17 after attaining a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Following his discharge from the Air Force in 1957, Major reentered the Chicago literary scene, editing and publishing Coercion Review from 1958 to 1961, where he encountered Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams. He relocated to New York City’s Lower East Side in 1966, moving into a creative environment of artists and writers, eventually publishing All Night Visitors with Maurice Girodias’ imprint, Olympia Press in 1969.
In fact, Major has been considered a wanderer, collecting ideas and experiences for his prose and poetry along the way in Chicago, Seattle, Washington D.C., Boulder, Davis, San Diego, and Nice, France.
“It seems to me that the impulse to write, the need to write, is inseparable from one’s educational process – which begins at the beginning and never ends,” Major explains in his essay, “Necessary Distance: Afterthoughts on Becoming a Writer” from the collection.
In a recent interview last month with On The Margin host Ethelbert Miller, he was compared to a literary Miles Davis with a masterful array of style and genres, both traditional and modernist. A look at the Novel Excerpts section is revelatory, from the experimental Reflex and Bone Structure, the finely detailed My Amputations, the home-spun Such Was the Season, the unsettling Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar and Dirty Bird Blues. As a craftsman, he possesses the prowess as a consummate writer, capable of providing effective characterization, dialogue or setting. Any examination of any of the excerpts is proof positive of this fact.
One of the classic Major stories, “My Mother and Mitch” leads off the short fiction section, having won the Pushcart Prize for Fiction in 1999. This stripped-down coming-of-age story overshadows the others in this segment, except “Chicago Heat,”
“Victoria,” and “Five Years Ago.” His versatility with image, language, and cultural realism is on display here, as with his notable Chicago Heat (2016) and Fun & Games (1999). It’s a reader’s feast in all of its bite-size excellence.
How does Major see his role as a writer? “The writer’s role is to be a truth-sayer,” he recently told an interviewer with The Rumpus. “I sincerely believe that each society, each country lives by a particular fantasy vision of its self. The truth of how they live is hardly ever faced…We, as a country, have also had some difficulties facing up to the horrors of American slavery. So, in the interest of the ethical and moral health of the country, the writer, the poet, the artist, the thinker, must hold a mirror up his or her country and say look, this is who we are, this is how we live, this is our past, we must own it, forgive ourselves, transcend our transgressions, and become better people.”
The essays gathered in Part Three show some of the author’s favorite interests: the stellar “Thanks for the Lunch: Clarence Major Has Lunch with James Baldwin,” two gems featuring Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman, and appreciations of William Faulkner’s Light in August and Richard Wright’s neglected The Long Hallucination. Also, one of the passions which consumes Major is painting, which has bewitched him since age ten.
While there is the recent release of Uffe Sparre Fischer’s The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major, he considers that volume a companion work for this collection. “Poets almost inevitably reflect painterly ideas and ideals, and methods and processes in their work,” Major writes in his essay, “Painting and Poetry.” “Painters too almost inevitably reflect the principles of poetry – metaphor, narrative, symbolism, and so forth.”
But Major does not confuse the two art forms. “The main way they are not alike is this: Painting is primarily spatial, and poetry is primarily temporal and conceptual,” he concludes. “They can, however, be seen as parallel activities. But ultimately the words in a poem are not going to achieve the same effect on our senses as paint strokes on canvas.”
An accomplished artist, Major has had 15 solo exhibitions and paintings in more than 28 group shows. He has been awarded many honors for his art, including a 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts by the Congressional Black Foundation.
In Major’s bio in Wikipedia, there is mention of two marriages, children, two divorces, and a restless spirit, but the dirty laundry is left out and that’s for the best. The author is very private and that suits him well. Part Four consists of his memoir or subtitled: “From Taking Chances: A Memoir of a Life in Art and Writing.” This section contains some personal information, featuring writers, books, and the art scene, yet there is nothing rude or embarrassing about it.
I first encountered Major through his poetry, with two books, Swallow The Lake (1970) and The Cotton Club (1972). This was not the usual voice from the neighborhood. This was assured, confident, capable of pressing all of the emotional keys, skillful in assuming assorted personas and genders. The samples in the poetry segment of the book is outstanding, but we crave more. I have my favorites: “Hair,” “The Slave Trade,” “Father,” “Alchemy,” and the jazz duo, “Round Midnight” and “Un Poco Loco.”
Now retired, Major is distinguished professor emeritus of 20th Century American Literature at the University of California at Davis. His academic career is a long and varied one. His writing career is not
finished, especially not after this release of his “Greatest Hits.” Or his seminal The Essential Clarence Major.
Major hits the nail on the head with the summary of his mission. “But I, as a writer, could not afford the luxury of a vision of my own experience as sentimental as the one suggested by my country (of itself, of me). As I grew up, I was trying to learn how to see through the superficial, and to touch, in my writing, the essence of experience – all of its possible wonderment, agony, or glory.”
Howard Rambsy's first book, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), examined many aspects of the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic Movement and gave special attention to "publishing venues and editorial practices [as] the principle connectors in the far-reaching transmission of poetry during the black arts era."
Since 2011, Rambsy has used his website Cultural Front (www.culturalfront.org) as a mega-notebook for information on such items as:
The wealth of information in Cultural Front has inspired many critical thinkers to pursue new scholarly projects; it has also served as the source of Rambsy's authority and his being esteemed by his peers.
Rambsy makes compelling speculations about pedagogical change necessitated by trends in African American literary and cultural arenas. His gathering of data as empirical evidence of how cultural domains function is impressive. If there is a weak spot in his method, it is a tendency to make hasty albeit tentative conclusions without scrutinizing the data. Astute readers get the point quickly. The strength of his efforts, on the other hand, exists in his sketching out a needed sociology of African American literature, in his being a pioneering scholar activist.
While parts of Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers are grounded in his first book, his second book deals mainly with works produced since 2000. Rambsy uses quite general assumptions regarding ethnic tastes as he makes a case for inquiry about individual writers and how use of "bad men/bad boys" as foci for critique ordains a mixing of qualitative and quantitative procedures.
He is fully aware of how vexed interdisciplinary studies can be, and he makes a clear statement about the difficulty of joining literary study with creativity research conducted in the social sciences. Nevertheless, he gives us a fine illustration of how “adopting concepts such as ‘creative domains’ and ‘problem finding’ from creativity research could enhance our understanding of processes and inventiveness of black writers.”
“Rebellious or disobedient black male characters and historical figures,” Rambsy argues, “often showcase racial problems that stimulate African American writers to address a range of pertinent issues in original ways.”
However much one agrees with Rambsy, intellectual integrity demands careful thinking about the range of pejorative and complimentary meanings covered by the term “bad men.” The term "bad men" is super-slippery.
One must be cold in struggling with ideas about American violence directed against black people, about the concept of the heroic, and about ugliness and pain as they challenge us in the study of cultural domains and the practices of everyday life. It is no easy matter to sort out “moral bad men” who possess commendable consciousness about the need to combat American racism by any means available and “immoral or amoral bad men” who are often applauded for blatant criminality.
The task is made exceptionally difficult if one tries to name the value “bad men/boys” have in the aftermath of the obscene murder of George Floyd and the long history of murdering black women and men that is ordained by the racial contract that prevails in the United States.
One must ask, for the sake of adequate cultural explanation, whether “bad men” as creative touchstones for writers and other artists are weapons to decimate racism and racists, or psychological defense mechanisms to disguise a suspected futility in endlessly speaking truth to entrenched inequity.
Like a number of current scholars who bravely expose the vernacular hypocrisy and tyranny of academic discourses regarding American political, racial, and cultural histories, Rambsy has embraced his own version of a pedagogy of the oppressed to clear pathways into a future. He provides essential guidelines, but readers are encouraged to make independent discoveries in negotiation with Rambsy’s arguments. He is aware the bane of scholarly thinking is the delusion of having arrived at an answer.
The conversational organization of the book maximizes readability. The three chapters of Part 1 focus on how Kevin Young, Tyehimba Jess, and Adrian Matejka endow their writings with bad men, on ex-slaves as muses, and on characters in literature who are alleged to be race traitors.
Part 2 shifts attention to the depiction of black boys in Aaron McGruder’s famed Boondocks comic strip and the significant work Trymaine Lee and Ta-Nehisi Coates in writing about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Rambsy concludes with optimism, because he believes “we can invigorate literary studies by examining the works of black writers utilizing concepts such as problem finding, domains, and productivity. So many wonderful discoveries await us at the crossroads of African American literary studies and creativity research.”
For students and scholars who engage in literary and cultural studies, Bad Men: Creative Touchstones of Black Writers is required reading.
James Patterson’s Alex Frost books, filled with a “sharp intuition, beat ‘em up” “explore the depths” style of crime novel, has made him among the top five crime writers in the world. Lately, he has been working closely with a select few co-writers, training them to write good commercial books.
The question is, has this training endeavor hurt Patterson or his style of writing? If the House of Kennedy is an example, the answer would be that the training has not hurt, at least not in this collaboration.
Other partnerships have produced quite readable mysteries, some have proved more palatable than others. A few are more formulaic, one or two are pedantic and there is an edge missing from that found in his solo works. Maybe it was time for a change in direction?
The House of Kennedy, a history of the Kennedy family from the days of the Irish Potato Famine to today’s generation, is that change in direction chosen by both Patterson and his current co-writer, former New York Post journalist Cynthia Fagen.
Though there have been many books on the “Royal” family of the United States. The focus has been mostly on Jack and Bobby and the drama that pertains to the assassinations and the rougher portions of political life in our country. The challenge for our two authors was to make the book relevant, important to Kennedy researchers, conspiracy theorists and fans.
How to do that?
Patterson/Fagen have chosen to add family and friends’ memories (both sad and glad) into their narrative structure. Some have only been released to the public in the last decade through letters, diaries and notes earmarked for release “at a later date.”
Politics and the charisma of both men led to affairs, including one with Marilyn Monroe, which Jackie Kennedy handled brilliantly by inviting Monroe to take over her duties as First Lady. That cooled Monroe’s ardor. However, it did not improve the relationship between the presidential couple, caused by numerous affairs until son, Patrick, died in 1963. After that, everyone around them noticed a new closeness between the two that lasted until the day Jack was killed. There are many tender, funny, happily competitive moments caught in this book that I have not seen in others and for this reason alone, this book is a valuable addition to the Kennedy biographies and memoirs.
The other noticeable difference from most Kennedy books is the removal of most of the conspiracy theories behind Monroe’s suicide, Ted’s accident, and both Jack and Bobby’s assassinations. We are given the single shooter story of Oswald, and Sirhan’s mad man shooting of Bobby. All other points of view are largely ignored. Only the basic facts are given for everything that affected the ability of Jack, Bobby and Ted to play out their delegated chores in politics. If you’re researching the Kennedys, it wouldn’t hurt to include this in your research, as a guide for more complicated projects, reports and PhD theses
Overall, The House of Kennedy proves a good choice for a change in direction by Patterson/Fagen to historical journalistic themes. Written in a fluid page turner, it reveals some lovely side notes, a huge compendium of sources, some laughs, “just the facts, ma’m” and a feeling of being on the inside of the Kennedy circle.
I just finished reading two books on interviews with former slaves from the famous FDR’s WPA, out of the dozens the project published. You can go to the Kindle store on amazon and download many for free.
So, what did I see in only two books?
First, almost all the plantations had a whipping pole in the large yard so all could see what was going on. Second, those slaves in the Upper South were deadly afraid of the slave driver that could come to the plantation and take them down “the river.”
The most feeling of grief for these poor folks was when a husband, a friend, or a mother, father, or young children, never to be seen again. I counted 7 women who birthed ten or more children, and did not know where anyone of them where after slavery.
Also, in both books, Mammy was real. According to these books, she was not to be messed with and would take on the whites as well as the blacks. This was now many generations of slavery. Mammy was now the one that raised the Master’s children. One even said, “I raised dem, and they better not give me no lip.”
Poor Uncle Tom could only hold his hat in his hands when he spoke to the Master and look down at his feet.
Also, both books said over and over, that the slaves would never snitch on each other. That was one rule that the slaves held on to. They were also stealing Master blind: a hog here, a cow there and all the watermelon you can eat.
Again, as I have said many times, slavery is not a long time ago. My mother and grandmother knew ex-slaves. I never met a ex-slave, but when I was born, there were still plenty of them still living.
But one thing I now believe is that blacks and whites are going to really come together in maybe another 100 years. Now, we are still stuck in slavery.
This plea for life has been seared into the collective memory of the entire world along with the video of the White Police Officer Derek Chauvin killing the Black man George Floyd. What is different about this murder is that three other officers were videotaped watching the killing.
And yet. Black people are not silent, and our activism has created movements to apprehend and punish this type of police officer.
In this book, author/athlete/activist Etan Thomas (Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge) has assembled over 50 interviews with the loved ones of victims of police violence and the athlete/activists who have helped them and the black community on the road to justice.
It is a hard book to read because the killings continue. Painful or not, it is a vital part of our history as Thomas makes clear.
He begins the book with a sensitive interview with Jahvaris Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s brother. Unlike the other victims in the book, Martin was murdered by a civilian named George Zimmerman who lived in the neighborhood. Fulton shares his feelings about the support their family received from the Miami Heat.
“…We were definitely appreciative of the different athletes speaking out on our behalf because, to be quite honest, it couldn't have happened without you guys…”
Fulton goes on to explain that the Press didn’t want to run the story at all. Had the Miami Heat not gotten involved, the world would never have heard about the Trayvon Martin murder.
A disturbing fact that comes across in the book is how the Press has been complicit in the murders of Black people. Admittedly, complicit is a strong word here. Unfortunately, there is no other way to explain how, as award winning basketball player, Chris Webber puts it: “One of the worst cases of demonizing the victim to me was Trayvon Martin. … and yes, it’s purposely done. They want to only present one side of the argument.”
In other words, all of the victims mentioned in this book were further victimized by the Press casting aspersions on their characters.
Thomas makes the case that Black people cannot rely on the media to report the crimes against us by the police. We must begin early on telling our stories ourselves thereby protecting each other.
This is something that star quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been doing with great commitment as detailed in the book. He created the Know Your Rights Camps for young Black people of various ages. The camp is a school of sorts where these children learn their civil rights and how to conduct themselves if they’re approached by police officers.
Thomas has been following the success of this enterprise for a number of years and sees it as a movement. He describes how the camp instills pride in these young people by teaching them their history. Kaepernick began building the camp with the aid of experts in several fields especially Black history. He has even given these youth membership in Ancestry.com.
His is one approach in the struggle against police brutality. Thomas includes two more that focus on healing the emotional and psychological toll of police brutality on families and loved ones of victims.
One is Mothers of the Movement ( [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothers_of_the_Movement, website not given in the book]). This is a group of black mothers whose children have been killed by the police or other senseless violence. The second group, Children of the Movement, is composed of the children of victims of police violence. Both organizations provide life-sustaining community and support to the loved ones of victims. Members from each group speak on panels throughout the country on the need to stop these killings.
For these brothers and sisters, the organizations and others like them enable the loved ones to move on with their lives with as little PTSD as possible to paraphrase Allysza Castile, sister of Philando Castile,
“…because people just don’t know the turmoil that we go through… .”
Her point is broadened in Thomas’s interview with WNBA Star Swin Cash formerly of the Detroit Shock.
Thomas had not addressed the abuse of Black women by police officers up to this point in the book, but Cash brings it front and center.
“…Swin explained how women were being subjected to crimes by the police just as men were, but that it wasn’t being publicized as much…Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and Korryn Gaines…” are just some of the names that Cash mentions. (Recent events, specifically the murder of Breonna Taylor, only highlight what many now describe as a war on Black people.)
In addition, Swin led the WNBA athlete/activists in a protest by wearing black shirts in response to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile before a game pitting the Minnesota Lynx against the Dallas Wings in 2016.
However, she paid a price for championing the cause of eliminating police abuse as Thomas demonstrates. The WNBA imposed heavy fines on its athletes. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Minnesota Police Department refused to protect the players during the game. The police officers literally walked out of the arena before the game refusing to protect the players and the fans.
Later, the WNBA rescinded the fine. Ironically, Minnesota is in the news again because of police brutality against Black people.
As more and more police killings of Black people fill the headlines every day, how do we put an end to this? Thomas doesn’t provide one answer to that question, but he does give many examples of the footwork needed in the work of athlete/activists.
In them, we see the importance of using whatever platform is available to demand that we all can breathe freely and thrive without fear of the police or anyone else.
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